anna knott

Better times: Baby back ribs, homemade sauces, and Lillie's Q brew.

By now, you probably heard—or if you live in Wicker Park, smelled—that Lillie’s Q, Charlie McKenna’s terrific barbecue spot at 1856 West North Avenue, suffered from a large fire last night.

Before you launch into the usual smoke-related BBQ cracks, consider that the blaze closed the restaurant indefinitely. Judging from the restaurant’s dire message this morning—“We'll be back somewhere, somehow, and someway”—it could perhaps be gone forever. It’s always sad when a restaurant suffers this kind of catastrophe, but especially so for one that was performing at a level as high as Lillie's Q.

I have always been a critic of Chicago barbecue, for years hollering “Overrated!” like a privileged kid in the student section at a Duke basketball game. Apart from some grizzled veterans (Uncle John’s, Lem’s, Barbara Ann’s, Honey One) and smart newcomers (like Smoque), the city, I argued, has long been populated more by the kind of soft, flavorless ribs in sickly-sweet sauce: what ’cue experts deride as “meat Jell-o.”

Lillie’s Q changed things. A new wave of barbecue spots started popping up around 2010—a class that included Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen, Pork Shoppe in Avondale, and Chicago Q in the Gold Coast. Lillie’s Q was the best. McKenna decorated his restaurant (named for his grandmother) more like a contemporary American bistro than the usual cartoony pig shack, and custom-built two enormous D.W.’s Kountry Cookers to ensure the charcoal and peachwood saturated his magical ribs evenly. And saturate they did.

When people ask me where to get a good slab of baby backs in Chicago (and they’re not the types comfortable in unfamiliar neighborhoods), I almost always recommended Lillie's Q. It married that Southern expertise with a modern restaurant’s mentality and creature comforts. While I found the efficient staff strangely humorless, their grim nature somehow proved how seriously they were taking the barbecue.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I want to believe a guy as talented as McKenna, whose smokers were on 24 hours a day for nearly 1,000 days, cannot not do barbecue. He will be back.

Until then, we raise a moonshine elixir and toast his speedy return.